If it’s summer, then that means summer time thunderstorms, with their bright lightening flashes and very loud cracks and booms. Is your dog scared of thunder? We’ve found a few effective ways to deal with a dog’s fear of thunder.
Many dogs of all ages and breeds are scared of thunder. Some dogs who struggle with unexplained fear of thunder can seems unusually sensitive to any storm-related occurrence, such as changes in barometric pressure. Once the rumbles begin, their anxiety rapidly escalates into overwhelming real terror. So, for us the pet owner/caregiver, it’s especially unfortunate that summer’s humid conditions can produce some of the biggest storms of the year in the Southern Ontario area.
A dog scared of thunder and lightening will often hide, urinate, have excessive panting, drooling, trembling, whining, eye-rolling and/or frantic efforts to escape. For some pups, it can include all of the above … and some of their escape efforts can lead to painful injury. The cruel irony is that if we, as pet owners, fawn over or try to over-comfort him, we’re essentially reinforcing his panic behaviour. A dog often interprets this pronounced over-reassurance as confirmation that the event taking place truly is worthy of panic.
There’s no guarantee that you can ever fully resolve your dog’s fear of thunder. But there are ways that you can manage it effectively. Here are 5 strategies that have worked especially well for many owners:
1.Be carefully aware of your own behaviour during a thunderstorm
If you remember nothing else, remember this: Constant petting or consoling is often interpreted by pets as a reward for the fearful response— or reinforcement that the fearful response is real and warranted. On the other hand, punishment will only increase a panicked pet’s anxiety level. One solution is to project a calm, cool vibe and giving your pup attention in the form of playing, grooming, or other activities he/she normally enjoys.
2. Switch the dog’s environment when a thunderstorm is approaching or has begun
Changing your pet’s location can be surprisingly effective, because it may help reduce the storm’s volume level or make your pet less aware of it. You could, for instance, choose to hang out on the bathroom rug with the overhead fan droning away whenever it storms outside. The fan creates a form of “white noise” that blocks out the sounds that disturb him.
Allowing your pet access to the basement, or a room without windows, may have a similar effect. Some pups find that a closet or the area under the bed feels especially safe and secure. If your pet heads for his crate, try covering it with a blanket to increase feelings of security. However, keep the crate door open so your pet won’t feel confined (which can dramatically increase anxiety).
3. Be aware of the daily weather forecast and increase exercise before a thunderstorm starts
When thunderstorms are predicted, think about taking your dog for a few extra walks before the clouds roll in. This helps to tire him both mentally and physically. Many vets claim that it can also boost natural serotonin levels, which then act as a natural calming aid (for you too).
4. Use counterconditioning during a thunderstorm
This behavioural term simply means we help the dog to associate something negative (the thunderstorm) with something positive. For example, you could keep one of your dog’sall-time favorite toys hidden away and bring it out to play when he begins to feel nervous about an approaching storm. Or consider sometimes feeding him an extra-special treat during these times, as well, such as a small piece of bacon or cheese. This diverts his focus, and enjoying the treat/toy during the storm can gradually help to recondition his response and immediate behaviours.
5. Try desensitization if your dog is scared of thunder
A good thing to practice during the off-season for thunderstorms, usually over the winter, is to simply play an iPod/iPhone mix of storm sounds at an extremely soft level. While your dog remains relaxed at this level doing things around the house, say a simple cue word like “chill” and provide a yummy treat every 15 seconds or so. Then, gradually extend the time your pet needs to remain relaxed before earning the treat.
Once your pup can remain relaxed on command, increase the volume a single notch and repeat the process. If at any time your pet shows pronounced fear or panic, go back to the previous volume level, say the cue word, and reward for staying calm. When an actual storm takes place, continue using this same cue/reward system.
Again, some dogs exhibit a pretty intense fear response when it comes to thunderstorms. The good news is most owners and dog caregivers have managed to help the pet cope without resorting to the use of drugs. If none of these approaches work for you, have a candid conversation with your vet. In extreme cases, there are medications that can help keep your pup comfortable. But please remember that a little dedication and ingenuity from you may be all that’s necessary to help your canine cope successfully.